Yezidi Women under ISIS


18 Jan. 2019

By Busra Nisa Sarac

ISIS is already notorious for its barbarity, and the brutal treatment of women living under ISIS-controlled territories is no secret. Campaigns of rape, torture and mass murder have been proliferating since the extremist group seized territories in Iraq and Syria [1], but their treatment of Yazidi women and children marked a new chapter of systematic genocide of an innocent population. The international media and Western governments started following the Yezidi community in general, and Yezidi women in particular, from 2014 [2] onwards. This was around the time when ISIS attacked the area around the Sinjar district of Iraqi Kurdistan as part of its drive to establish the so-called ‘Caliphate’ [3]. Following the attack, they murdered all of the men first, and then kidnapped more than 5,000 girls and women [4]. 


The Yezidi community in general has been subject to a systematic attempt to wipe out an entire people [5]. They have been beaten, tortured, raped and abused by jihadists every day. There has been a lot of media coverage of Yezidi women who suffered violence at the hands of ISIS in 2014. However, since ISIS was removed from Mosul in 2017, everything has been calming down, and little discussion has been held on what these women have been through. Western governments and the international community also lost interest in Yezidi women, and what these women have been through still remains unaddressed and unknown. A significant number of women and children remain unaccounted for, and we do not know where they are or what happened to them [6]. Yet, considering these women’s experiences from their own viewpoints, one could reflect on how their words could produce a strong response, because the trauma of the 2014 attack remains fresh in the minds of most Yezidis.  

Who are Yazidis?


While the current academic literature on Yezidi women is relatively scarce, and very few people had heard of the Yazidis in the Western world until the mass persecution by ISIS in 2014, the literature offers some insight into Yazidism as a religion and as an identity. There have also been many studies which have discussed gender-based and sexual violence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq related to the patriarchal, Islamist and militarist nature of the region [7].


Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion that has some elements in common with many religions in the Middle East, including Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity [8]. It is also a closed religion which is passed down through generations by stories and music [9]. Yezidis are not allowed by religious leaders to marry outside their religion in order to protect the Yezidi identity. Those characteristics immediately grabbed my attention as a researcher, because due to having those characteristics, the Yazidi community has been the target of persecution and gender-based violence at the hands of the regimes under which they have lived. Yezidis believe that they have faced 74 separate genocides (by some accounts it is 72 or 73 [10]) that were attempts to destroy their religion [11]. These genocides or persecutions happened under the Ottomans, the Ba’ath Regime, and most recently under ISIS [12]. However, Spat claims that this number is symbolic. According to Yezidi mythology, the nations of the earth are 72, and the Yezidis are not included in this number. So, the number 72 is a way of expressing these Yazidi persecutions by all outsiders [13]. 


It is a widely held belief that the Yezidi population is a Kurdish speaking minority, and Yezidis are ethnically Kurds [14]. Nonetheless, it is something that remains contested even within the community. Cathy Otten also states that Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, told her that “politically, socially, geographically, strategically, in the end Yazidis are Kurds. Linguistically, their future is interlinked with the other Kurds. That is a reality [15]”. At this stage, it is important to note that while they have faced persecution due to their religious beliefs, they have also had to endure atrocities due to their ethnic affiliation as Kurds [16]. All of these atrocities against them did not come to international attention immediately, though. Like the Ottoman and Persian Empires, ISIS has used the same arguments in order to justify the persecution of Yezidi people in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2014. However, this time, the international media took notice. The first group of reporters began to appear regarding the sexual violation of Yezidi women and girls, and this information was circulated within the media after the US had announced its air campaign against ISIS [17].


Gender-based and Sexual Violence against Yezidi women under ISIS

ISIS’s interpretation of Islam has allowed it to legitimise all attacks and atrocities committed against its ‘enemies’. Therefore, there is a need to have a better grasp of the ideology ISIS follows, because this will help provide a far-reaching understanding of the concept of women in the group. While some researchers prefer to describe ISIS members as Salafi-Jihadists [18], in this article they will be called ‘jihadists’. The reason behind this description is that the jihadists adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet. Thus, they believe that they are the true Muslims, who follow the Prophet’s pathway. This discussion will be left here for those who are interested in, because it is beyond the scope of this article. 


Two elements need to be discussed regarding the violation of Yezidi women’s freedom and gender-based violence. The first one is the fatwas that allow ISIS to abuse women sexually. The second is the recruitment of Arabic women under a brigade to enforce strict codes of dress and behaviour among other women. These elements will help provide an understanding of how and why Yezidi women have been abused by ISIS. 


Fatwas are basically legal opinions given by an Islamic cleric on a specific issue. Within the context of Yezidi women, ISIS’s Research and Fatwa Department declared that, unlike Christians or Shia Muslims, Yazidis are a ‘pagan minority’ [19]. Thus, they can be “killed, robbed, displaced, and forced to convert to Islam [20]. Because, they are not ‘People of the Book”. Therefore, their sexual violence is legitimised by religious justifications. When the group seized territories in 2014, they took women and girls as slaves, both sexually and domestically, killed men, and ruined women’s rights entirely. The women were also given as awards to fighters, who raped and sold them in slave markets [21]. ISIS’s English language magazine, Dabiq, also stated that Islam permits sex with non-Muslim ‘slaves’, including girls [22]. 


The second element that justifies their brutal treatment of women is the brigade which consists of Arab women. This brigade serves to make sure that all women under ISIS follow the jihadist understanding of the religion. Their responsibility is to punish women if they stray from ISIS’s extreme Islamist rules. The group uses strict controls over women’s dress, movements and behaviour to communicate the greater purity of the new Muslim state [23]. Vince also points out that the attention paid to women’s dress, morals, social status and cultural practices is linked to the justifications for the creation of such a state [24]. 


Given the aforementioned elements that help the jihadists justify their abuses, it is important to bring the voices of these women from the margins to the fore, because they have not been given enough attention and those personal experiences might exploit existing gender ideologies in specific contexts. 

  1. Sulome Anderson, “Women Survive. They do not Live”, Foreign Policy, October 11, 2016.

  2. [Nadje Al-Ali, “Sexual violence in Iraq: Challenges for transnational feminist politics”, European Journal of Women’s Studies 25, no.1 (2018):  10-27.

  3. Stacey Dooley, On the Frontline with the Women Who Fight Back(UK: Penguin Random House). 

  4. Thomas McGee, “Saving the survivors: Yezidi women, Islamic state and the German admissions programme”, Kurdish Studies 6, no.1 (2018): 85-109.

  5. David Barnett, “Women who are Captured by ISIS and Kept as Sex Slaves Endure More Than Just Sexual Violence”, Independent, November 29, 2016.

  6. Hollie McKay, “Yazidis Seek Rescue of Women and Children Enslaved, Married off to ISIS”, Fox News, May 10, 2018.

  7. Nadje Al-Ali “Sexual violence in Iraq: Challenges for transnational feminist politics”, European Journal of Women’s Studies 25, no.1 (2018):  10-27.

  8. Nadia Murad, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State(UK: Virago Press, 2017): 5. 

  9. Cathy Otten, With Ash on Their Faces, Yezidi Women and the Islamic State(OR Books; 2017): 8. 

  10. Nadia Murad, p. 6. 

  11. Cathy Otten, 19. 

  12. Irene Dulz, “The Displacement of the Yezidis after the Rise of ISIS in Northern Iraq”. Kurdish Studies 4, no.2 (2016):131-147.

  13. Eszter Spat, The Yazidis(UK: Saqi Books, 1985):26.

  14. Nelida Fuccaro, “Ethnicity, State Formation, and Conscription in Postcolonial Iraq: The Case of the Yezidi Kurds of Jabal Sinjar”, Middle East Studies 29, no.4 (1997): 559- 580.

  15. Cathy Otten, 69. 

  16. Irene Dulz (See note 12).

  17. Cathy Otten, 4; Nadje Al-Ali; Adam Ferguson, “Persecuted Yazidis Again Caught in Larger Struggle”, The New York Times, August 11, 2014.

  18. Bruce Livesey, “The Salafist movement”, June 15, 2018).

  19. Jenna Krajeski, “The Daring Plan to Save a Religious Minority From ISIS”, The New Yorker,February 26, 2018.

  20. Khanna Omarkhali, “Transformations in the Yezidi Tradition after the ISIS Attacks: An Interview with Ilhan Kizilhan. Kurdish Studies 4, no.2 (2016):148-154.

  21. Isabel Coles, Ali Nabhan “Nisreen’s Choice: Women Rescued From Islamic State are Told to Leave Children Behind”, The Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2018.

  22. Nadje Al-Ali (See note 2).

  23. Sarah Ladbury, Hamsatu Allamin, Chitra Nagarajan, Paul Francis and Ukoha Okorafor Ukiwo, “Jihadi Groups and State-Building: The Case of Boko Haram in Nigeria”, International Journal of Security & Development 5 no.1 (2016): 8.

  24. Natalya Vince, Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory and Gender in Algeria, 1954-2012(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015): 72.